How Things Change Out From Under Us
Anyone who has been around for a while and who pays any attention to the news sees many disturbing changes. Recently, I read a report that two children, ages seven and eight, had an altercation at school during recess. They were carted off in handcuffs by the police. The teachers or principal had dealt with the boys’ disagreement by calling in the law.
I wonder if the kids now have felonious assault records that will cancel their Second Amendment rights when they come of age.
When I was a kid there were no age limits to the Second Amendment. We all had firearms before we reached puberty. Anyone with the money could purchase a .22 caliber rifle at the local hardware store. If you were too young to see over the counter, the proprietor might call your parents to get an OK. You could purchase .22 caliber ammunition and shotgun shells at most any gas station.
None of us ever shot anyone or any farmer’s cow or mule. There were no gun accidents among my armed companions.
My grandmother never batted an eye when I walked out of her farmhouse with my grandfather’s shotgun. Guns were just a routine item. We all learned gun safety from the Boy Scouts. My grandmother only became concerned for my safety when I became the proud owner of a spirited horse.
If the attitudes that exist today had been around when I was coming along, my entire generation would be felons. I had my first altercation at the age of three. Bullies were ever present. A kid had to steel himself against them. At six years of age I learned that, Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers bravado notwithstanding, an older and stronger kid was just that. Fortunately, my mother was there to rescue me.
In our neighborhood elementary school, to which we all walked or rode our bikes from kindergarten on, recess was where one’s mettle was tested. One of our classmates, Robert, was much bigger than the rest of us and became overbearing.
Generally, our fights were wrestling matches. The first to get a scissors or a headlock on the other party would prevail. But Robert was a boxer, and as he was a head taller and long-armed, he was a problem. One day Herbert had enough of Robert, and a fistfight emerged. It was the first time we saw blood. Herbert was game, but Robert had the reach and the punch, and Herbert got a bloody nose and a busted lip.
The fight lasted a fairly long time, but the playground monitor, Mrs. Humphrey, a pretty young woman who taught the second grade, finally broke it up.
No police were called.
Robert won the fight, but it was the end of his bullying. Herbert, who was about 14 inches shorter, had stood up to him and continued the fight until rescued by Mrs. Humphrey.
Fighting was just normal. It wasn’t a police issue. Notes might have gone home to parents to explain the cut lip and bloody nose, but fights were just part of growing up. A person had to learn how to stand up for himself.
Standing up for oneself was a theme of an ad that ran in the magazines of my youth. The ad appeared in the form of a comic strip. There were several versions. The one I remember most was the one in which the 97-pound weakling takes his girl to the beach. The muscular bully kicks sand on the skinny guy, and, when the weakling protests, the bully pushes him down. His girl bemoans his lack of manhood. The weakling orders the ad’s product, Charles Atlas’s muscle-building program.
Soon the weakling is a different man. He is back on the beach, encounters the bully, and KO’s him with a right to the jaw. The girlfriend is overflowing with adoration for “a real man."
Today, this ad would probably bring a lawsuit or an arrest for inciting violence.
Certainly, the bully would be arrested for assault for pushing the weakling to the ground.
The transformed weakling would be arrested for assault for letting the bully have what was coming to him.
When I was in high school, a rich kid, Fate, who worked out with weights and whose father brought in professional boxers to give Fate boxing lessons, decided that he wanted my girlfriend. He spread the word that, after school, he was going to beat me up.
An older and more experienced student with a Napoleonic turn of mind advised me. He explained that I was unlikely to fare well if I worried all day about the event, which would be worse for having a big audience. The trick, he said, was to surprise my antagonist by striking first. Physical-education class would be the opportunity, he said. Fate and I were the quarterbacks of the opposing teams. My mentor said, “Pick the moment and let him have it.”
Fate was the better fighter, but he had relied on intimidation instead of skill, and it had not worked for him. Where there had been confidence, there was now uncertainty. He was unsure of the outcome, and this gave me the edge.
The fight lasted the entire length of the P.E. class. The football coach in charge of the period did nothing. Fate got the worst black eye of his career. Miraculously, I emerged unmarked.
I kept my girlfriend, eventually married her, and fathered two wonderful children with her.
This sounds like bragging, but the point is entirely different. Today, Fate and I would be carted off in handcuffs. We would have assault records. We would have no Second Amendment rights, and every time there was an assault in our town the police would pick us up for questioning.
Fate was no worse for his black eye. It probably taught him to escape from hubris. He went on to be a quarterback for the University of Georgia.
I went on to become assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
If the police had been called, they would have just watched the fight.
Today, even pretend fighting can result in expulsion. Not long ago there was a news report of a six-year-old who, playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers at recess, pointed his finger at classmates and said, “Bang, bang.”
The school determined that the six-year-old was a danger to his classmates.
How times change. We were never without our cowboy cap guns and holsters until we had attained sufficient coordination to be accepted in the neighborhood football and baseball games. In the third or fourth grade I took a .38 caliber Spanish revolver, for which I had traded a World War II helmet, to school for show-and-tell. The teacher asked if it was loaded. “No ma’am,” I replied, “this old pistol won’t fire, besides, you don’t load a gun unless you are on the firing range or on the hunt.” “Unless,” I added, “you are a soldier at war.” I demonstrated that the pistol wasn’t loaded by opening the gate and twirling the cylinder, just as Randolph Scott did in the movies.
The teacher wasn’t perturbed. It was a tame item, really. The previous week, Buddy Sikes had brought a copperhead to school in his backpack thinking it was a garter snake.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.